Monday, April 21st, 1902
St. Pierre, Martinique
In Saint-Pierre the place to see and be seen was the theater on the Rue Victor Hugo. For a gala performance of “Tartuffe”, which featured a visiting troupe of actors from Paris, every seat in the house was sold out. The newspaper Les Colonies had promised ‘An evening of spectacular entertainment never before seen on the Saint-Pierre stage’. It mattered little that the editor, Marius Hurard, was a silent partner of the theater’s owner.
At eight o’clock spectators began streaming into the hall, including Emilie Dujon, a young woman of eighteen with amber eyes, chestnut-colored hair, and a grave but lovely face. She was escorted by her fiancé, Lucien Monplaisir, a tall, brooding young man of twenty-six with broad shoulders and a rakish air, and his younger sister, Violette.
Emilie was brimming with excitement. She hadn’t been to the theater in years, not since her father’s plantation “Solitude” started losing money. She spent most of her nights reading her vast collection of books until she knew them all by heart; Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas were her constant companions. By the light of a kerosene lamp she had traveled the world by hot air balloon, battled giant squids, and fought many a hot-headed duel. But soon she would be leaving that world behind.
Emilie smoothed out her muslin gown as she took in the beautiful surroundings. The theater was even more splendid than she remembered. It shimmered like a golden Fabergé egg. High above their heads, the chandelier gleamed, spreading warm light over the frescoes that adorned the ceiling. She felt a surge of pride. So much had happened these past four months! Her whole life had changed. It was hard to believe how she, the daughter of a struggling cocoa planter, managed to capture the attention of the heir to the largest sugar plantation in the French West Indies. It still took her breath away.
The lights went down and the play began. The audience watched with rapt attention, including Emilie, whose eyes scarcely left the stage. Even Lucien, who normally grew bored after only a few minutes, seemed to be enjoying himself.
Suddenly, by the middle of the third act, something unusual caught Emilie’s eye. Her attention froze on Suzette Lavenière, an old school friend, sitting in the opposite box. It looked as though she was gazing at Lucien. Lifting up her opera glasses, Emilie saw to her shock that Suzette appeared to be winking at him! Stunned, Emilie dropped her opera glasses and tried to calm the beating of her heart. Holding up her program, she saw out of the corner of her eye that Lucien met her gaze and winked back in return.
A cold chill ran through Emilie’s body.
She continued watching them for several minutes, certain that some unspoken communication had passed between them, like secret lovers. Their eyes were almost locked together in secret, silent communication. Emilie’s heart sank She was seized with an indescribable pain that hit her like a crushing blow. Lucien was a fraud. A deceiver. A cheat. All at once her dreams of marrying for love were dashed, leaving her strangely numb and confused.
How could she have been so wrong about Lucien?
Lucien leaned over and whispered, “Why is your face so white, Cherie? Are you crying?” He slipped his hand over her shoulder but she stiffened at his touch. She stammered out an answer but she was filled with anxiety and dread. Every muscle in her body was rigid with tension. She sat as stiff as a statue but inside she was in turmoil. She lost all interest in the play. She lost all interest in Lucien. And then a sickening thought occurred to her. If Lucien was this deceitful before their marriage, what would he be like after?
And then, in the midst of her great turmoil, a great rumbling noise filled the hall. The building began to shake. The chandelier swayed and tinkled. The seats vibrated, as if moved by some unseen hand. The chandelier swayed so forcefully Emilie feared it would crash on the audience’s heads. She gasped in fright. The audience cried out in alarm, while on the stage, the actors looked around in confusion. When a piece of scenery fell down, almost hitting one of the actresses, they shrieked and ran back stage. And then, to everyone’s horror, a marble statue fell into the audience and a woman’s piercing scream gave rise to mass panic.
Someone yelled “Earthquake!” and all at once everyone jumped out of their seats. The musicians fled the orchestra pit like wasps from a burning nest, waving violins, flutes, clarinets, and violas over their heads. People jostled and pushed each other in their haste to escape. An old woman cried out and an elderly man in a black suit and top hat struggled to protect her as they were shoved aside in the melee.
Lucien grabbed Emilie and said, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” He pulled her and Violette through the crowd and then hurried down the marble staircase. When they reached the bottom, they raced through the courtyard, feeling the ground shake beneath their feet. When they reached the Rue Victor Hugo, they climbed inside the carriage and the driver proceeded north, past throngs of people rushing around in confusion.
Suddenly, from the top of Mont Pelée, flashes of light resembling artillery fire were lighting up the night sky. Black smoke rose from the crater and curled upwards like a malevolent genie. Emilie kept her eyes fixed on the mushrooming black clouds that billowed out from the summit and spread leeward over the city where they began to rain ash and cinders.
Boom! Suddenly, an explosion like cannon-fire rocked the carriage. It was followed by a loud rumbling noise and tremors that shook the earth. The horses reared and the elderly West Indian driver struggled to control them. “Ho! Ho!” he cried, as he pulled on the reins. Emilie felt her heart pounding in her chest. Is the world coming to an end? She feared the ground would split open beneath them and swallow them up. Even Lucien looked scared. Outside, the gas lamps swayed and roof tiles smashed to the ground as people rushed out of their houses in a frenzy.
By now the streets erupted into chaos. People ran out of their homes and gathered in the Place Bertin, while others headed toward the cathedral, crossing themselves and uttering prayers out loud. Some were visibly crying. Shouts rang out from balconies and shutters flew open as curious residents peered out into the darkness. A few horses broke free of their reins and galloped down the street, chased by their furious owners.
Emilie’s muslin dress was soaked with sweat and her hair clung to the back of her neck. Heat and humidity hung in the air like a wet blanket. She glanced over at Lucien, but he was staring at the smoldering volcano with a mixture of fear and awe. Oh God, please don’t let me die here together with Lucien. Now it made sense why, for the past several weeks, snakes, rodents, and yellow ants had been abandoning the mountains in droves, heading to lower ground. She had even heard reports of steam clouds and smoke rising from the upper river of the Rivière Blanche. Most people had shrugged it off as meaningless.
Finally the carriage ground to a halt. They watched the scene unfold before them like spectators to a disaster. After the initial panic subsided, Lucien called out to the driver. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
The driver cracked his whip and the horses proceeded across the stone bridge that crossed the Rivière Roxelane, and then headed north for several miles until they crossed the Rivière Blanche, the natural boundary between “Solitude”, the Dujon family plantation, and the Guérin Sugar Factory. They turned west onto a dirt road bounded by coconut palms and clumps of bamboo, past the tiny hamlet of Saint-Philomène, and continued as the road climbed higher along the western slopes of Mount Pelée. After a few minutes an ominous smell began to fill the air. It was not a burning kind of smell, like the occasional fumes that drifted down from the Guérin Sugar Factory across the savannah, but a different kind of smell, like rotten eggs. For the rest of the journey back to the plantation, Violette chattered non-stop about the commotion in the theater while Lucien nervously drumming his fingers on the carriage door.
Emilie was too shaken by the experience to respond. Between the frightful events on Mont Pelée and Lucien’s behavior, she didn’t know which was worse. She was determined to cancel their engagement, but how? The wedding was only two months away. No young lady of her social class had ever broken an engagement and survived the resulting gossip and slander. The scandal would crush her parents and brand her a social outcast. But she could no longer consent to marrying Lucien. As Emilie gazed up at the summit of Mount Pelée, she stifled an urge to cry as an ominous film of clouds blotted out the moon, reducing her world to utter darkness.